"I Really Want to Show Gratitude to A Lot of People"; Mixing Real-Life Experience With A Serious Theme, What Were Kenshi Yonezu's Goals for His First Drama Theme Song?
Kenshi Yonezu's 2018 has begun with a spectacular story of success in his first two-day performance at the Japan Budokan. Following up without delay, his new single Lemon, as the theme song of TBS's Friday TV drama "Unnatural," has been the subject of much discussion even before its release. We asked him the details about the creation process of this song, whose lyrics incorporate an unprecedented real occurrence.
Q. Your more-direct-than-usual use of words and wet, emotional melody feel very fresh in this song.
A. It's my first time doing a theme song for a drama, so... I don't know how long I'm going to keep saying this, but I'm a person who came from the internet, so doing something on TV is a new challenge for me. It's on a totally different level, I think.
Q. It certainly is.
A. So my job was to look for what was in the space between "people who like TV dramas" and "myself who came from the internet." The show Unnatural has a medical coroner for a protagonist, and it's a story that deals with death, so I was considering, in my own way, just what is death all about? And by the time I'd finished the first chorus or so... My own grandpa died.
Q. Huh? I had no idea...
A. I believed myself to understand that death is always near, but when it really did appear before me, I had to think things over once more. Drawing influence from the show, I had been going for a nuance of facing death head-on and healing someone who's hurt, but that was all reduced to zero. So what I ultimately completed was a song where I just say "I'm sad that you're gone" for 4 minutes straight. The drama staff was pleased with that, though, so I think it's fine in the end.
Q. The reality was far heavier than what you imagined, then.
A. That's right... Even if you feel you understand those things in your head, just like you've never seen your own skull, there are things that inevitably fade into the background as you live out your day-to-day life. But because it manifested in the form of my grandpa's death, I had no choice but to directly face it.
A. While there was that, though, I definitely felt there was a point of connection between myself and the show regardless, and it's not completely a song about me and my grandpa. Looking at the "#Unnatural" hashtag, there are a lot of different reactions - it's obvious, but people feel different ways about it.
Q. The "Lemon" that serves as the title, and also appears in the lyrics - where did it come from?
A. At first, I picked the temporary title "Memento" (memento mori is Latin for "remember death"), started making it, got up to a chorus, and my grandpa died... And I thought, "it can't be Memento." For a song thinking about death, "Memento" felt too easy. I was thinking it should be a more universal word, familiar, like you'd expect from pop. That's when I wrote the lyric "Inseparable from my heart, the scent of a bitter lemon"; honestly, it was meant to be temporary, and I don't know why I went with "lemon" myself, but for some reason I thought "lemon, that's good" and went on making it. The last line, "Like one half of a fruit sliced in two, even now, you are my light" came to me around dawn the day before recording, and that's what finally made it stick for me.
Q. Ahh, I see.
A. Sometimes when I'm making music, after I'm done, I get the sense that it's teaching me things that I never even thought about myself. This was one of those times. Like I was thinking "what's with the "lemon" thing?" the whole time I was making it, then at the very end, it made sense.
Q. It paints an extremely vivid image.
A. I've always had the idea that fruit is similar to humans. That's why fruit frequently appears in my songs. That construction of having skin, meat, and seats feels much like a human. Lemons can also be a literary subject.
Q. Like Motojiro Kajii.
A. Also, in "Portrait of Chieko" (by Kotaro Takamura), there's "Lemon Elegy." I have that idea of them in my head, so I think part of it may have been that.
Q. To talk about the song: it starts like a quiet piano ballad, but the track is hip-hop-esque, the chorus has an intense band sound, and strings come in as well. It makes for a very dramatic progression.
A. I was thinking I'd go for a ballad, but a simple ballad isn't very interesting, and I didn't want it to be purely gloomy. In fact, the drama has comical scenes as well, and the story moves at a great pace. I wanted to make a hybrid of sorts, with sad words over a dancing, skipping rhythm. So I referenced hip-hop tracks.
Q. The melody's nostalgic feel, and dare I say poppy moisture, feels different from what you've done before.
A. That's because I wanted to make a classic pop song. It's not directly related to this song, but I'm particularly into Miyuki Nakajima-san, Yumi Matsutoya-san, and Takuro Yoshida-san's music lately, and I've been listening to it a lot. I was thinking, could I make a song like that too? Even I think that balance I'm going for is strongly visible.
Q. I think you've delivered on a level unlike ever before.
A. The show is really fantastic. I think part of it is lucky timing, but I feel there's a lot of people I have to show my gratitude to.
Q. How about the coupling? Cranberry and Pancakes has an adult, groovy tune with cool, masculine, sluggish singing over it.
A. I like to drink. I drink every night, play until morning, come home, and feel all sluggish. I figured maybe I'd make that listless feeling into a song. (laughs) Even for the actual recording, I drank until morning and did it the next day.
Q. You went and did that on purpose? (laughs)
A. I felt that'd connect better. It's not like I "cut corners" or anything, but I didn't have any such responsibility as "making the theme song for a TV drama," so... (laughs) I made it in a very relaxed way, and it resulted in a song very connected to my private life.
Q. The other song, Paper Flower, is more electronica-like and detailed than the typical Yonezu style.
A. I feel it's a well-made song. I decided I'd try making a song that gradually went upward, a song that didn't use high-hat sounds - though I did use them, in the end - and to distort the bass in the chorus to add to its intensity. It's a song that began from specific techniques.
Q. It's a beautiful song, but the lyrics have a dark feel.
A. I'm confident in the fact I'm making beautiful music, but sometimes - as I believe anyone does - I think "what good could this possibly do?" There's a nuance of cynicism toward myself.
Q. It's a single with a lot of new challenges in it. What I'm always amazed by watching your work is how you take on new challenges every time. You've scheduled your first show in Makuhari Messe for October this year. That's very exciting - I'm looking forward to it.
A. If I can't come up with anything new, that's bad news. I imagine that day will eventually come, but I'm not currently thinking that far ahead. For now, I'll just do what I can do.